Written on the Body, #16: February 1, 2020: Lunar New Year and other anniversaries

We have just had the Lunar New Year celebration — clouded this year by the new Corona virus in China and spreading throughout the world — moving from the Year of the Pig to the Year of the Rat. I remember going to a Lunar New Year celebration in New York’s Chinatown in 1979, with red and yellow dragons and clanging music, that exorcised some old demons. And last year our co-op celebrated with a dinner and party at which a young boy, about 7, did an amazing Lion Dance.

Feb. 1 is also Imbolc, the ancient Celtic holiday, honouring the goddess Brigit, that is now also called St. Bridget’s Day (probably a way of incorporating the goddess into Christianity). This holiday, about midway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, celebrates the beginning of spring, the germination: Imbolc literally means “in the belly” and commemorates the ewes becoming pregnant around this time, so the lambs will be born in later spring. Bridget also is the goddess of poetry, among other things, and so of creative inspiration and beginnings.

There is also the Jewish New Year of Trees, Tu BiShvat, which this years falls on Feb. 10 (it can range from mid-January to mid-February). Trees in Israel, as in British Columbia, begin to bloom earlier than on the Canadian east coast.

So all these holidays suggest renewal, and paying attention to small, almost invisible signs — the days getting gradually longer, for instance, or the first snowdrop flowers.

This is also, for me, the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis: I had the endoscopy that clearly showed the esophageal tumour on Monday, Feb. 4, 2019, the day after our co-op Lunar New Year party mentioned above. It is, of course, not the date the cancer started — that is impossible to know — and I had had a preliminary endoscopy in November that showed problems needing follow-up. But it seems as good a date as any: not only for the diagnosis, but for the beginning of treatment.

And this year, on Jan. 30, I started chemotherapy again after a break from mid-December through January: for the holidays, to let my body rest, and to see the results of a CT scan on January 14. So this time of year is another beginning, as well as an anniversary.

The good news from the CT scan (which they do about every 3 months) is that there is no further spread to other organs or to my bones. Yay! However, the not-so-good news is that a couple of the liver lesions, which have been there since diagnosis and which were seen getting smaller in the CT scans of July and late September, have now increased a bit in size (we’re still talking about 2 cm.) This concerned me, but when I saw the doctor on Jan. 28, he was pretty sure that increase is due to the break in treatment, and that more regular chemo treatments will help decrease the size again. So I am relieved. I am still tolerating the chemo well, and feeling well during daily activities. I don’t have all the energy I used to have to go to readings and meetings, especially out of town, and i miss that — but I enjoy the visits and contacts I do have (in person, phone, and email). I enjoy the weekly talks with my son in B.C.

And, looking back, it has been a good year, with some great highlights: trips to Halifax and to Vancouver and Vancouver island to see our kids and other family and friends, writing and giving readings of new poems, and publishing a new book (an exciting experience for any writer, and a special joy this year). In addition, there is daily life — baking, making small home improvements, making eye-contact and occasional small talk with people on the TCC, — and of course enjoying conversation and closeness with Roger.

I feel I have moved into ‘living with cancer” rather than having a quick death-sentence. On the other hand, there is a part of me that worries about when “the other shoe is going to fall.” That is part of living in the Sea of Uncertainty. However, I have chosen to enjoy the time I am feeling well, rather than keep worrying.

The worries sometimes come out in odd ways, such as concern about whether food is safe and fresh, or the cleanliness of household surfaces — and I say this as someone who accumulates clutter, though I do like things clean. I know that these are things I have some control over — unlike the illness itself — but I also know that, in themselves and at the present time, they will not cause or accelerate the cancer (they are not the poison of fairy tales!) I think about possible causes — breathing in smoke from my grandparents’ cigarettes when I was a little girl in the early 1950’s, for example — but know even this would not be a definitive cause; it is more by chance that some cells in some people’s bodies are affected by smoking, pollution, additives, etc., while others are not.

Meanwhile, as Mary Oliver says in her wonderful poem “Wild Geese,” life goes on. We can talk about despair, yours and mine, sharing these feelings in our common humanity — and, at the same time, we can hear the wild geese returning with their callsharsh and exciting announcing your place in the family of things. We are connected to the beauty of the world and each other, as well as the pain.

To new beginnings…wherever they lead.

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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